Review by kobalobasileus

"Surprise! Sega Revitalizes the Tactical RPG."

Valkyria Chronicles
“Surprise! Sega Revitalizes the Tactical RPG.”


The company that brought us Blast Processing is best known for games featuring their mascot, a certain blue hedgehog (who shall remain nameless). Sega is also known for bungling, both with their endless stream of add-ons and too-soon console successors and with their inability since 2001 to make a blue hedgehog game without screwing up the core gameplay and/or adding horrible, fan-fiction-quality story segments. What most people overlook when examining Sega is that the company has a rock-solid track record for RPGs. Starting with the Shining and Phantasy Star series, Sega was one of the first companies to produce console RPGs, of both the traditional and tactical sub-genres, and almost always of high quality. Sega has continued to produce a few RPGs into the modern era of videogaming, such as the excellent “Panzer Dragoon Saga” and “Skies of Arcadia,” both of which were new intellectual properties at the time of their debut. With “Valkyria Chronicles,” Sega has created yet another new IP. With the afore-mentioned knack Sega has for creating solid RPG experiences as well as their recent knack for screwing up everything they touch, “Valkyria Chronicles” was balanced on a razor's edge: Would it be a new addition to Sega's line of excellent RPGs, or would it be yet another victim of their incompetence?

Presentation:
“Valkyria Chronicles” sets a new standard in the use of cell-shading. Other games have used textured cell shading before (such as “Wild ARMs 3”), but never to the extent of “Valkyria Chronicles.” Much of the shading looks as if it were hand-colored with colored pencil, despite being computer-rendered onto polygonal character models. The entire game interface has a white border that blends into the main image, giving the game the look of an old photograph that is faded around the edges. Within the backdrop image, fully animated character portraits pop-up in their own faded-photo-frames to deliver lines of dialog. This effect is quite attractive and very fitting for the game, as the entire framework of the game is setup to make the player feel as if they are reading a history book, which serves as the main menu for choosing missions and configuring characters.

Character designs in “Valkyria Chronicles” are anime-style and incredibly pleasing to the eye. Whereas many recent anime-style characters tend toward super-deformity or are just insanely drawn (featuring stupid hair and wardrobes that make them look like they were caught in the bombing of a thrift store), “Valkyria Chronicles'” cast looks normal and dresses sedately. Instead of pandering to the shonen anime crowd, these characters look like they are from an anime that is aimed firmly at an adult audience who won't be drawn-in by emos, goths, and other weirdness.

Characters are well-animated and lip-synch is good, for the most part, using the game's rendering engine for all but two scenes. The only awkwardness I noticed was in subtle hand movements. However, these types of animations keep improving over time, and “Valkyria Chronicles” features some of the best animation outside of pre-rendered movies. However, most of the action in cutscenes is implied and takes place off-camera.

The sound in “Valkyria Chronicles” is just as good as the visuals. The English dialog dub is incredibly well-done. I actually preferred the English track to the Japanese track. The quality of the two tracks is equal, but when none of the characters are Japanese, it makes Japanese dialog seem out-of-place. The music in the game is memorable and fitting, forming one of the better OSTs I have heard in an RPG in a long time.

Story:
“Valkyria Chronicles” takes place in an alternate universe in Europe (called Europa in the game) during the 1930s. The Second Europan War (EWII) has broken out between the Empire in the East and the Europan Federation in the West. The small, neutral country of Gallia sits between the two superpowers, much like the real world's Switzerland. The Empire begins encroaching on Gallia, ostensibly in an attempt to gain access to their rich deposits of Ragnite, a fictional mineral that can be refined into fuel, medicine, and pretty much everything else, and which serves as the game's MacGuffin.

The main character, Welkin Gunther, is the son of a war hero from EWI and a college student studying Biology. Thanks to Gallia's compulsory military training as part of their middle-school, high-school, and college curricula, Welkin is also trained as a tank commander, which comes in handy when his hometown is attacked and he is drafted into service in the Gallian Militia, which is separate from the haughty and incompetent Gallian Army.

Leading the newly-formed Squad 7, Welkin, along with love interest Alicia, ex-bar singer Rosie, vegetable maniac Largo, and a whole slue of other quirky characters, must push back the Imperial offensive and unlock the secrets of the ancient super-race of Valkyrur, one of whom stands among the ranks of the enemy.

“Valkyria Chronicles” features a diverse cast of characters, some of whom fall into the category of ‘anime stereotype' more easily than others. All of the main (i.e., non-expendable) characters are likable, which is quite a feat in this day and age of annoying RPG characters. The villains are more strongly stereotyped than the heroes, featuring an Aryan race emperor, a withered old prune who hates everyone, a busty mystery woman, and a handsome rogue who is working toward his own goals. Fortunately there are no brooding antiheroes or silver-haired prettyboys anywhere to be found in the game, which is a big plus in my book.

Gameplay:
“Valkyria Chronicles” is an entirely fresh experience as a Tactical Role Playing Game. Whereas most TRPGs have turned inward, creating ever more complex systems and increasing amounts of min-maxing and “grind” gameplay, “Valkyria Chronicles” goes the opposite direction, toward simplicity and streamlining, borrowing from other genres.

Each mission is displayed on the pages of the in-game book and separated by a number of photos that trigger cutscenes. As the game progresses, more tabs are added to the book, which allow the player to visit Headquarters for upgrades, play repeatable Skirmish battles for extra experience and money, and read info about the game's world and characters. Missions are typically based around capturing an enemy base, but some of them revolve around set pieces, such as a giant enemy vehicle.

One of the biggest changes in TRPG protocol is the way experience and equipment are handled. Whereas most TRPGs award each individual character experience for doing things (which leads to weak characters remaining weak because they can't kill anything), “Valkyria Chronicles” instead awards the player an amount of experience after each battle, which can be divided up and assigned by the player in the Training Camp back at Headquarters. Not only is experience assignable by the player, it is assigned by character class, not individually. If a player likes Snipers (I certainly do), they can assign more experience to that class and level-up ALL of their Snipers before any other class. Each class; Scout, Shocktrooper, Lancer, Engineer, and Sniper; requires a different amount of experience to level-up. The amount of experience awarded is static for each mission, but can be increased by performing well, either through the ranking system (which awards a higher rank for completing missions in fewer turns) or by destroying tanks or unique enemy units (called “Aces”).

Similar to experience, equipment that is developed in the R&D Facility at Headquarters is provided in bulk, thus removing the need to buy specific gear for specific individuals. There are some rare weapons that are only acquired one-at-a-time, but these must either be captured from enemy Aces or awarded by the princess of Gallia based on performance in any given mission.

One would think, with mass-leveling and mass-produced equipment, that characters would all seem cookie-cutter-identical. This is not the case, as each character has a set of inherent abilities called ‘Potentials' that give them unique strengths and weaknesses. More Potentials can be unlocked by leveling, but each character has at least one Potential that can only be unlocked by using them in missions.

The first difference between “Valkyria Chronicles” and other TRPGs that meets the eye, however, is the fact that there is no map grid. Instead, the player is presented with a view that looks like an old-time tactical military map with colored, circular icons representing each unit (enemy units are red, allied units are blue); this view is called ‘Command Mode.' At the top of this map is a ribbon labeled “CP” which contains a number of icons that resemble medals. These Command Points are expended to move units on the map (infantry units require 1 CP, tanks require 2) or issue stat-boosting orders. Moving the cursor, via the left analog stick or d-buttons, over the map to any unit pops-up a summary of that unit. Pressing X while hovering over an allied unit causes the camera to drop into the map to a third-person perspective ‘Action Mode' of the chosen unit. Once in this mode, the player is free to move the character with the left analog stick and the camera with the right stick. Each character has a gauge that appears at the bottom of the screen in Action Mode that shows how much they can move around. Once a character is in position or runs out of movement, the player can press Square to cycle through their equipment and press R1 to enter first-person ‘Aim Mode' to use the chosen equipment. All character classes are equipped with a primary weapon and infinite doses of the medicinal “Ragnaid.” Some classes have access to interesting secondary weapons, such as grenades or flamethrowers. Aim Mode freezes time and allows the player to line up shots for the most accuracy or the most damage. Each character's aim features an orange circle on a set of crosshairs. Every shot fired will fall somewhere within the orange circle, and shots that hit the target's head cause significantly more damage than body shots.

An incredibly novel feature of “Valkyria Chronicles” is that, while any given unit is moving in Action Mode, opposing units will fire upon it if it enters their range. The use of interception fire allows for some interesting strategies, such as positioning Shocktroopers or tanks at a choke point and watching enemy troops wilt beneath the hail of bullets as they try to make their way through. Likewise, avoiding interception fire forces the player to temper their aggressive tactics with caution.

Yet another novel feature that makes “Valkyria Chronicles” stand above all other TRPGs is the player's ability to move units in the order of their choosing and the ability to move the same unit multiple times in the same turn. Most TRPGs use a character's speed to determine when that character will move and only allow one move per turn (or less, for particularly slow characters), resulting in very limited strategy that relies significantly on number crunching and luck. “Valkyria Chronicles” throws all of this baggage to the wayside and provides a new sense of freedom never before seen in the genre. Each move a character makes after the first decreases the length of their movement gauge. Aside from that there is no penalty for moving the same character multiple times.

When examining a TRPG, the way the game handles death is fairly important. Some brutally difficult TRPGs are well-known for their permanent character deaths, either instantly or a certain number of turns after falling. “Valkyria Chronicles” adapts the latter model, giving the player three turns after a character falls to touch that character with another character or issue an order for a medical evacuation. Characters that are important to the story never die but ‘retreat' instead, if left incapacitated for three turns. Expendable characters will die permanently if they aren't treated by a medic.

“Valkyria Chronicles” also bucks the trend of insane difficulty that is becoming the norm in the genre. Battles in “Valkyria Chronicles” are challenging and require thought, but they aren't ridiculously hard. It is entirely possible to see the Game Over screen, but only through tactical mistakes and lack of foresight, never cheapness. Sometimes missions spring surprises midway through that can be disastrous; but fortunately this challenge is ameliorated by the fact that “Valkyria Chronicles” is one of the few TRPGs that allow saving mid-mission. Some of the missions are incredibly long, taking me up to two hours to complete. Being able to save after key victories or in anticipation of surprises can prevent significant amounts of replay and keeps the game from becoming frustrating. Those who want brutal difficulty, however, will be pleased with the Hard Skirmishes that become available during New Game +, as these versions completely stack the odds against the player.

“Valkyria Chronicles” is the recipient of three pieces of downloadable content. I purchased two of them. The one I avoided was an Extra Hard difficulty for Skirmishes (Hard was difficult enough for me). The two pieces of DLC I did buy are side-story missions. One features an annoying, expendable character named Edy who becomes separated from the rest of Squad 7 along with a small group of some of the worst characters in the game. She is forced to lead this detachment in defense of a small village. It's a fairly challenging mission, largely because of how bad Edy's allies are. It doesn't tie directly to the main story, though, so I found it to be an irrelevant waste of money. The other piece of DLC I purchased focuses on one of the villains, Selvaria, and her attempts to take a Gallian fortress prior to the events of the main game. As a flashback episode from the perspective of the enemy, I found it to be a great addition to the story. However, the best part of Selvaria's DLC is the ability to unlock her incredibly powerful machine gun for use in the main game. I found this piece of DLC to be absolutely essential and well worth the money.

Overall:
“Valkyria Chronicles” was an absolute pleasure to play from beginning to end (and New Game +). It has completely spoiled me for this genre and set an impossibly high standard for future TRPGs. I highly recommend it to RPG fans, even those who don't particularly like TRPGs. The unique features, solid story, likeable characters, and beautiful presentation combine to make this the best RPG this generation; and I don't anticipate “Valkyria Chronicles” being dethroned anytime soon. I also highly recommend that everyone who purchases “Valkyria Chronicles” also purchase the Selvaria DLC, as it truly does what DLC is supposed to do.

Presentation: 10/10
Story: 10/10
Gameplay: 10/10
Overall (not an average): 10/10


Reviewer's Score: 10/10 | Originally Posted: 01/20/10

Game Release: Valkyria Chronicles (US, 11/04/08)


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